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Brain surgeons and rocket scientists no brighter than the rest of us, study finds

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/12/2021 Nicola Davis
Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It may not be rocket science, but researchers have found aerospace engineers and brain surgeons are not necessarily brighter than the general population.

Researchers examined data from an international cohort of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons who completed 12 tasks online using the Great British Intelligence Test (GBIT) from the Cognitron platform, as well as answering questions around their age, sex and levels of experience in their speciality.

The tasks examined various aspects of cognition, including planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities. The researchers then compared the results against those previously gathered from more than 18,000 members of the British public.

The findings, which were published in the festive edition of the BMJ, reveal that only neurosurgeons showed a significant difference, with quicker problem-solving speed but slower memory recall compared with the general population.

“The difference in problem-solving speed exhibited by neurosurgeons might arise from the fast-paced nature of neurosurgery, which attracts those with a pre-existing flair for rapid processing, or it could be, albeit less likely, a product of training for rapid decision-making in time-critical situations,” the researchers noted.

The researchers said the study was, in part, carried out to lay to rest the question of whether one of the professions had the intellectual upper hand – a tension made famous by the Mitchell and Webb sketch in which a swaggering neurosurgeon is slapped down by an aerospace expert who says: “Brain surgery … it’s not exactly rocket science is it?”

Not rocket science? SpaceX Falcon 9 with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida last year. © Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images Not rocket science? SpaceX Falcon 9 with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida last year.

However, the team found few differences between the cognitive abilities of aerospace engineers and neuroscientists, although the results suggest the former had higher scores for attention and mental manipulation – such as rotating objects in one’s head – while neurosurgeons showed higher scores in semantic problem solving – such as definitions of rare words.

“Essentially what we think it shows is that everyone has a range of skills, some people are better at some things and other people are better at other things, and it is very difficult to be better in everything across the board,” said Aswin Chari, a neurosurgical trainee at Great Ormond Street hospital and an author of the study.

Referencing the two professions in the study, Chari added: “It is not that they are better at everything, but they are better at certain things that make them good at what they do.”

It may therefore be best to ditch rocket science and brain surgery idioms for phases like “it’s a walk in the park”, added the researchers.

“It is also possible that other professions might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving group,” they said.

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